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interview: manuel navarrete

Sometimes it's very difficult to get a conviction of somebody who is just moving credit cards or just using a stolen passport, because ŕ’ this is really nothing compared to killing 191 people. Spain, until recently, was sort of a transit country for immigration into Europe. [How has] that changed in the last five, six years?

For many years, all the immigration flowing from North Africa, from different countries in Africa, was going through Spain to the opportunity land in France, Germany, Switzerland. But after 20 years, the development of Spain, we have increased our internal [product]. So there's a lot of opportunity. And also we need a lot of people to perform different duties here.

You have to bear in mind that Spain is receiving every year more than 50 million tourists, so there's a lot of business here going around. So progressively we are incorporating people coming from different countries into the levels here. So I think this and also the circumstances changed. And now the people feel more integrated here into Spanish society than in different countries outside of Spain.

And so what was once a place, for example, where various terrorists might have passed through or lived quietly for a while has become a place where they're now active?

Well, I can't say that we're living [with terrorists] just resting in Spain. I don't think this was the case, because initially the extremists, the radicalism, the groups here in Europe, there were strong links to the groups in [surrounding] areas. They were acting in Germany or in France. They were a strong link with the original group in Morocco or in Tunisia. But I'm talking about 15, 20 years ago.

But now the situation has changed, especially after the Al Qaeda came into business, the fundamentalism of the Islamism. So now they have spread out the theory of the jihad throughout Europe and also through different countries in the Far East or in the United States.

So I don't think that they were just going through Spain to be active in Germany and Spain. I think initially ... they were trying to obtain finance and logistics to support the terrorism in those countries. But now the situation has spread out. They can act in Germany and France to acting throughout Europe. ...

Manuel Navarrete is the head of the international unit within the Intelligence Service of Spain's Guardia Civil. He is familiar with Spain's history with terrorism, from ETA to Al Qaeda. In this interview, Navarrette explains Spain's relationship with Morocco, how extremism has developmed as a problem for both countries, and how his job has changed over the years. He tells FRONTLINE, "We have a peculiar situation because of our geographical [location]. We are closer to the [North African] area than any European country. And also we have a history of 700 years of, I won't say domination, [but] Islamic culture in Spain, and they want to really recover this former empire." This interview was conducted on July 21, 2004.

So it's no longer just, if you will, a national movement; it's an international movement?

I think it's a global movement more than international. They don't think [they're] establishing, "We need the group in Germany," or, "We need the group in Switzerland, or 2,000 in France and one in the U.K." I think this is a global movement. This is just the core that they are going from, the radicalism originating in Afghanistan or different countries to the whole world.

So I think it's just the wave that is coming from there. And they [are] just taking advantage of the situation in Spain or France or Germany. And for the immigrants [who are] coming from those countries to Europe, it's easy to get the job; [it's] easy to get some documentation. So they're taking advantage of the situation here to obtain legal documents and to be infiltrating into the certain areas where the Muslim population is higher sometimes than the Spanish one. ...

But isn't Spain different? Ideologically, [the fundamentalists] want [to restore the caliphate], which is most of Spain.

Well, coming back to the historical reason, yes, because the fundamentalism, the radicalism, they are trying to recover the old [empire], and, in fact, we were part of that empire for at least 700 years.

We have a peculiar situation because of our geographical [location]. We are closer to the [North African] area than any European country. And also we have a history of 700 years of, I won't say domination, [but] Islamic culture in Spain, and they want to really recover this former empire.

They were expelled, is what they say, in 1492, and they want to come back. They want it back, and they're coming back.

Mm-hmm. But I think the radicalists is trying to express, because of God, how they feel. Allah is talking to them. They have to convert all the citizens into the real Muslim. Spain is one of the crucial particles. We were part of the Islam empire, so maybe we have a special taste for Allah. ...

There has been a history of tension, if you will, with Morocco. But how is cooperation on these issues?

We have to [go] back in history to really understand the relationship between Morocco and Spain. ... The relation between Morocco and Spain is very friendly. We have to [go] back to the colonial times to look for real tension between the two countries. ...

I think the cooperation between the Moroccan authorities and the Spanish -- initially [it] was quite hard to identify what was the problem, because right now, after the 11th of September and especially after 11 of March, it seems to be quite clear what is the problem. We have fundamentalism, radicalism growing every year, especially in Morocco, and I think that could be affecting Europe, and mainly Spain, because we are closer and we have historical past linked to that.

So initially it was quite difficult to focus where was the problem, because in order to be sharp, in order to identify the radical or extremists' practice within that religion -- so I think that after some time, that we start exchanging information about the radicalism in both parts of Spain and Morocco [and] we have identified some specific problems and some specific areas of war, that we can go deeper into that. And also we identify I would say the whole phenomenon, the criminal delinquency linked to terrorism, because this kind of terrorism, they also link to recruit people. For that reason, we found some link between the ordinary criminality and the terrorism.

Like drugs?

Like drugs. Like fraud. Like use of legal immigration networks to infiltrate terrorists. Or sometimes also the use of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to obtain funds to support terrorism.

You mean foundations, aid organizations?

Yeah, cultural associations. Sometimes they use this kind of organization to obtain funds that initially was people [giving] money to this organization for a real charity purpose, and sometimes they use [this] to finance different areas of criminality.

There's also immigration through the Spanish enclave. What is going on there? That is an area no one really knows about, at least in the West.

Well, we have two cities [Ceuta and Melilla] in the north part of Africa. But the relationship between these two cities and Morocco's has been friendly for many years. There's a lot of companies operating [on] both sides of the border in Morocco and Spain, in both cities.

I don't think we can describe that the radicalism in this area is higher than what is actually in Casablanca or in Meknes in Morocco or even some part of Spain that we have a strong Muslim population. And some of them could become radicalist. I don't think this situation is quite different to that.

But is that a transit point for it?

Yeah, they are, because the traffic, especially now you see how many people is coming from Europe, or like to, going through the Strait of Gibraltar [to] go to Morocco. The transit area has additional problems because it's more difficult to control the whole bunch of people there. ...

Is it like the Mexican border, in a sense, the difficulty the United States has policing the Mexican border?

Yeah, pretty much. [It] can be quite similar to the Mexican border, yeah. I think [with] the Mexican border, the flow of population is higher than we have in Spain. But the situation sometimes could be quite parallel.

If someone comes in illegally from Morocco into Spain, you can return them. But that's not true of other countries?

We have an agreement between the Moroccan authorities and the Spanish authority. [Here is the] main point: If the one who is trying to enter is paying illegally and he's a Moroccan citizen, we have an agreement that we can expel him from Spain quite rapidly. We have to get our court to issue whether this person is telling us that his name is this [so we] can identify him. When we identify him, we would check with the Moroccan authorities about a legal situation of this person, if there is any criminal records that we have to check. Then, in cooperation with the Moroccan authority, we can expel from Spain this Moroccan citizen.

Or if we can prove that this citizen who is not Moroccan has come from a different country of Africa or even from Far East or [an]other country, if we can prove that the original [point of departure] was Morocco, then within the agreement we can also expel him to Morocco. ...

But sometimes there's a problem to identify the people who are trying to reach Spain, because many of them are claiming they are seeking for political asylum. They are escaping from Sierra Leone or some certain areas in Africa. They are quite difficult areas there. There's civil war sometimes. And we have no evidence that we can prove that this person really is coming from Morocco. ...

How has your job changed in the last decade?

I was working within the Information Service when I left the Officers Academy, and I joined Information Service in 1986. I was in the country, and my main task was to work against [the Basque separatist organization] ETA.

During five years I was working there within the Information Service, working especially with the French authorities in this area. Our feeling was that the more we know about ETA, we concentrate our efforts, we identify really how they work, the organization and the infrastructure in Spain and France, we became more effective. You will really appreciate how effective we were. I mean, there is feedback about your work against your investigation, and you are achieving damage for the [terrorist] organization.

We progressively confronted the problem. And we were looking to control from the police point of view the situation about terrorism. And we really felt firm that we were able to control that. We have some problems. We have some losses. And sometimes we have a problem to finish our investigation. But we [knew] the enemy, and we can confront [them] using our home mentality, our home tools, our home terms.

But before 9/11, we start to see that the situation in Spain was changing. We were identifying certain data about the use of Spain for logistic purposes in order to support some of the Islamic groups in North Africa, in Morocco. And we were trying to develop tools to control this problem as we were controlling the situation of ETA, [but] we failed because the situation was quite different than [the one] we confronted with ETA, because we have to deal with the legal immigration; we have to deal with the normal criminality. And sometimes it's very difficult to get a conviction of somebody who is just moving credit cards or just using a stolen passport, because from the terrorists' point of view, this is really nothing compared to killing 191 people. So we've discovered that the main activity of these groups, they're on the conspiracy, the preparatory act to commit the major crime.

And the time is very short. They can spend two years, three years, eight years just thinking or just planning how to perform the terrorist attack, and when they have the chance and they have the capability -- they have access to explosives; they can download from the Internet the way to prepare the explosive -- in 10 days, in 15 days, they just go there and commit a crime, because normally they don't have to prepare for skipping [away] from the attack.

... So also it's a question of time. That, for instance, 11 of March attack in Spain, during our investigation we discovered that the main part of the explosives, they obtained the explosives about the 28th, the 29th of February of this year [2004]. These explosives were used 10 days later. So there was a short time [between] when they have the explosive and they use the explosive. But there were more than two years, we think, that they were just thinking to do something here; they were planning to do something here. And even in September or October of the year 2003, they didn't exactly know what they were going to do, but they were determined that they want to do something. They want to expand their jihad; they want to expand their radicalism. ...

The March 11 tragedy was the work of, we now know, a sleeper cell in Spain. What is the likelihood that there are other such sleeper cells at work or asleep in Spain at this time?

We don't have evidence right now that the group acting here was linked directly to Al Qaeda. We don't know yet. [Jamal Ahmidan] changed from being a[n ordinary] criminal to being a radical, and he continued working on the criminal activity to achieve the capabilities to perform the 11 of March attack. So how many people like Jamal Ahmidan could be in the same situation? We don't know. ...

Why has Morocco become such a fundamentalist militant breeding ground?

I think Morocco is no different to Egypt or to Tunisia or Algeria. For us now, the situation in Morocco is more important because Spain is closer to Morocco. It's our neighbor. We have a lot of relations traditionally with Morocco. And really, after the Casablanca bombing, the first terrorist attack that took place in Europe was mainly originated by Moroccan citizens, but they were legally here in Spain, so they had been working in Spain for many years.

I think that sometime Morocco was facing some situations about radicalism, but in a similar level, even in the lower level than Algeria or different countries in the area. But right now, because we found two crucial points about the Casablanca bombing and then the 11 of March, then we think that Morocco is the core of the fundamentalism in the area. But I don't think this is the right assessment of that.

How big a shock did it come to you, as a policeman and then as a citizen of Spain, to find that Morocco, which has had an ambiguous relationship with Spain over the years, how big a shock was it to find that Morocco was now this particular kind of a threat, this source of a terrorism threat for Spain?

I think that it is quite logical that many of the persons that were linked to the 11 of March attack, they were coming from Morocco, because the main immigration here in Spain is coming from Morocco. We have immigrants coming from Algeria, from Tunisia, from Pakistan, from Saudi Arabia, from different countries. But the main population is Moroccans, so [it is] easier for the people who try to manipulate this population to go into the Moroccans' groups and to manipulate them because they are the main part of the population here in Spain. And in the meantime, Morocco is facing progressively a growth of radicalism within the Moroccan territory.

We think that it could affect us because this is the danger, because the situation of radicalism is not only a danger for Spain. Especially [it] is a danger for the authorities in Morocco and for the Moroccan citizens.

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posted jan. 25, 2005

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